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Corona and the Rise of the German Police State

A group of people walking down the streetDescription automatically generated

Photo: author’s private collection.

A few weeks ago, a German women did something illegal. She bought a book called 1984 in a local bookstore. The bookseller was crying because he had not seen a customer for ages. Just a few months ago, these three rather unassuming sentences would have been a suitable beginning for a great book. In April 2020, this is the bitter reality in Germany. The Orwellian nightmare of an all controlling super police state is just around the corner, thanks to the seemingly relentless spread of the Coronavirus.

Inside Germany, most, if not all bookstores are closed on the orders of the state government. This is not centrally guided since police authority in Germany has traditionally been in the hands of individual states. Germany’s federal system has sixteen states with sixteen police jurisdictions. On top of this Länder police, the federal government has its own police.

So far, only in the East-German states of Berlin and Saxony-Anhalt is book purchasing still possible by walking into a bookshop – if the shop is still open. In the rest of Germany, the everyday act of buying a book incurs a steep fine. Booksellers also take a high risk if a shopkeeper tries to ensure economic survival by selling books.

Almost no one asks whether the harsh police measures are proportionate. German authoritarianism was rather truthfully presented in Heinrich Mann’s Loyal Subject. Heinrich was the brother of Nobel Prize winning Thomas Mann. German adherence to authority ensures that rules are accepted without qualms. Questions such as, how does forbidding book buying contribute to the fight against Corona? are no longer asked. Rather, book buyers, shoppers and those walking in public are officially accused of being guilty by default. German authorities simply assume that such conduct presents a risk to human beings. In most cases, German police men don’t even ask questions any longer when issuing fines.

Trained in the spirit of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, they carry out orders. Inside civic society meanwhile, the manslaughter argument (endangering others) choked off any form of critical debate. Killing off public debate is a vital step towards a police state. All dictators kill off debate whilst running highly brutal police states – from Hitler to Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Pinochet. A police state exists where governments exercise power arbitrarily through the muscle of the police force. Yet such police states never exist based on force alone; there always exists a certain level of general approval.

Germany’s high approval of government measures by a large majority of the population comes as part of a carefully targeted media campaign. A true sign of our time is that the hour of the Corona virus is also the hour of the executive – not vigilant democrats. German law enforcement agencies and local police are machine-like entities – they are efficient and they function. They implement measures and follow orders and measures ordered by their superiors. Twelve recent examples may illustrate the current state of affairs inside Germany under Corona:

Police checks have been established on the border between two East-German states – Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Border checks likes these have not been seen inside Germany since the end of feudalism in the 19th century when Germany consisted of mini-states. In other localities, internal German borders are also being built up. These might not stop the Corona virus but symbolically enforce measures by state governments. Visible police in action makes the state look good in the eye of the public under the hallucination, they do something.

Inside Germany, long-distance trains are strictly controlled. Recently, a young woman from the East-German state of Brandenburg was on her way to her 80 year old parents in the East-German state of Mecklenburg. She was planning to assist them moving house but was thrown off the train and forced to return back to Brandenburg.

The state of Brandenburg has also issued a lavish catalogue of fines. A penalty of €50 to €500 is issued to those who participate in public events which are currently prohibited; for visiting a playground, leisure pool, gym (the sites must be currently closed); anyone who takes up offers from sports and educational establishments which are currently prohibited; those who have public contact with people who do not belong to their household. A penalty of €500 is particularly harsh for Germany’s poor since the average monthly payment for social welfare recipients in Germany is a measly €432.

Fines of between €100 and €1,000 are issued to those breaching current visiting rules for hospitals, nursing homes or other care services; for non-compliance with the restrictions imposed on returnees from high-risk areas. Fines between €250 and €2,500 are issued to those breaching current rules on delivery services; violations of rules governing emergency facilities; anyone who infringes the social distancing rule of 1.5 metres in queues; and those who organise a public event.

Meanwhile in Berlin, a police car on patrol drove through deserted streets. The police officers stopped a group of Indian tourists. The tourists didn’t know that they are only allowed to be on the streets in pairs. An infringement fine was collected on site.

In the West-German city of Gelsenkirchen, the police announced that it had ended a gathering of more than ten people in a club on the night of 30th March – a fine was issued. People were told that an even more stringent fine will be issued if caught again.

Near Berlin, a woman was hiding in her second place of residence (a weekender). She has been told that she is no longer allowed to live in her second home in the countryside because local police believe that people from big cities might carry the Corona virus.

For the first time since the end of Stalinist East-Germany in 1989, there is a police-enforced duty to carry a state issued ID card. At the same time, local travelling permits [Passierscheine] are issued again – a reminder of Germany’s unsavory history. There seems to be a rising obedience to authority. And this appears to be everywhere.

In the southern state of Bavaria, people who move in public places can be stopped by the police at any time. They are required to provide personal information about their personal movements. Walking together with others is only allowed for members of the same household and for partners in a longer-term relationship.

Under Corona, the state enforces its power to intrude into the private lives of people. The enforcement of a request to explain one’s relationship to the police can be used to draw rather unpleasant conclusions about people’s sexual orientation and their marriage status. Germans can no longer simply meet with their lovers.

Under Corona, even reading a book while sitting on a park bench has become an offence. Strangely, jogging while reading a book is allowed. Happy are those who have a dog. They are still allowed to go dog walking.

Back in Berlin, a single women is surrounded by police near the Brandenburg Gate. She is forced to answer questions and is fined by police. Around the same time, a man is fined by police because he was cutting another man’s hair in his front yard.

Even stranger is the fact that police officers without protective equipment still enforce the measures outlined above. This is highly irresponsible and rather ill-conceived. It raises the old question, who protects us from those who claim to protect us?

Undeniably, the above list provides only a few examples of recent state regulations under Corona. Nevertheless, the list depicts a very serious trend towards a police state. Democratic safeguards seem to have been declared obsolete. Many of these restrictions and fines are issued while a minority in Germany seem to be pushing them. Meanwhile, politicians have already threatened even tougher measures. The head of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute [a main advisory body of the government] said, we are threatened by Italian conditions. Meanwhile Germany’s interior minister believes, inaction can mean millions of deaths. These statements might imply even tougher measures are to come.

Recently, a German right-wing tabloid celebrated the first prison sentence imposed for multiple violations of Corona restrictions. Much of this indicates that Germany could be moving towards a police state. Those who still move in public are treated with suspicion. They are forced to justify their movements and intentions. People are viewed with misgiving. Anyone who has ever been forced from a playground by the police is compelled to explain this to their own children. Under Corona, a policeman can no longer be seen as helper. Under a Corona enforced police state, arbitrariness, an increase in state power, and the police’s ability to acting at will are increasing. A police-enforced German-wide mask wearing directive could soon become a requirement. It will be enforced by the police.

All these police instruments are no longer a question of bad dreams. They are concrete measures that incur fines and even imprisonment. Still, there are people in Germany who keep an eye on the Corona-induced erosion of civil liberties. Under #CoronaPolice, progressive members of parliament try to collect evidences of police assaults. At the same time, right-wing extremists created a #sayThankYou to the police, openly supporting the rising of the police state in Germany.

The official but very anti-democratic and police-supporting state line is, special times require special measures. Meanwhile, the Corona crisis has largely paralyzed public life in Germany. Supporting tough measures, the Robert Koch Institute has assessed the risk in Germany as high. Germany’s governments are responding with far-reaching measures that interfere with people’s freedom.

Right-wing politicians such as Jens Spahn, Angela Merkel, Horst Seehofer, and Markus Söder present themselves as crisis managers while supporting police-state-like methods. They are applauded by Germany’s right-wing press. As is often the case, Adolf Hitler’s former home state of Bavaria is playing a pioneering role in the application of many police-state-like methods. For the first time in its history, Bavaria applies such restrictive instruments not just to specific localities but to the entire state.

In essence, Corona means that pretty much all of Germany’s public protection organizations are placed under a single command. This includes civilian disaster agencies, voluntary aid organizations such as the fire brigade and Germany’s Technical Relief Agency, the THW. The l’idée fixe of a single command also includes Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr. This provision violates a longstanding policy that Germany’s army is not to be deployed inside Germany. In the deceptive language of German authorities, this police-state-like centralization of power has been euphemistically labeled civil-military cooperation. This constitutes a further step towards the internal militarization of Germany’s society. The semi-legalizing of the use of the Bundeswehr (formerly known as Wehrmacht) to control the population violates Germany’s postwar constitution as well as a longstanding policy.

Most people agree that the army’s medical capacities should be made available for the care of those affected by Corona. But this should be done under the control of specialists, not under the power of the military or Germany’s Ministry of Defense. The drafting of people into the army – conscription – has so far not been discussed. Still, Bavaria’s legal system can require people to provide service, material and work and the use of their property if requested by the state. This means the state can issue confiscations of private property. Other provisions can override human rights in case of an emergency. Human rights, the freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, and the inviolability of one’s home can be subject to a restrictive law.

It is not yet clear how far the Bavarian government will go when using these provisions in the coming weeks. In some places, a curfew has been issued with more restrictions likely to follow. Further curfews have already been mentioned by the police. The police can issue on-the-spot fines and up to two years in prison. In addition, fundamental democratic rights have already been suspended. All events and meetings are prohibited throughout Bavaria. Similar regulations exist in other states.

A final example of how the ban on public gatherings is already taming protests comes from Germany’s capital. In Berlin, a ban on gatherings prohibits protests against home evictions. Often, unoccupied real estate is being used for speculative reasons. Set against money-making while leaving buildings empty for long periods of time, these buildings are occupied by people to ease a severe shortage of housing in Berlin. Now, police evictions can be carried out without public protest. Still, many people who have been evicted have announced that they will maintain their mobilization against the impending police state.

In the north German city of Hamburg, the local social-democratic city government used the Corona virus as a pretext to prevent protests. The public protest rally was organized by a refugee support group called Lampedusa Hamburg. The rally was stopped by local police. The power of the police is increasing as health risks are seen to surge. On the other hand, there is no denying that gatherings with a large number of people can encourage the spread of the Corona virus. From an epidemiological point of view, there is no doubt that there is an urgent need to restrict interpersonal contacts. This is precisely why it makes sense to avoid large crowds.

Still, the current crisis is used to prevent protests and to impose measures in a highly authoritarian way. Currently, there is not much resistance against police measures. Notwithstanding, there are movements to mobilize protest. Some people want to take to the streets to defend themselves, their democratic rights and their living conditions. There is a growing movement to fight for social and democratic rights. These rights must not be taken away by the state and its repressive bodies. Even with the current interference into the freedom of movement, meetings of political organizations, trade unions, and civil organizations must still be allowed to operate.

Meanwhile, Germany’s health system needs to be democratically controlled by unions and workers including people working in laboratories, clinical staff, medical aids as well as a public administration. The public administration needs to be democratically controlled by workers and health specialists. In fact, Germany’s entire health system should be controlled by committees of health workers and patients.

Such democratically controlled committees would be an extension of democracy. It reflects on an old request frequently issued by workers to carry democracy from isolated parliaments into the realm of work. Under the Coronavirus, such moves appear farfetched. Currently, signs are that Germany is moving into the opposite direction with more restrictions issued every day. There might not be a fully developed police state in Germany but democracy is suffering in Germany and elsewhere.

 

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Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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